Following American supported UN sanctions for restarting its nuclear program, the North Korean leadership has threatened to carry out a nuclear attack on the “American Imperialists” as well as South Korea. In a recent act of protest, North Korea closed the jointly-run Kaesong industrial complex and moved a missile to its east coast in preparation for a potential attack on the US. (See Timeline of North Korean dispute).
Over the last 50 years, not much has changed in the North Korean foreign policy playbook. Indeed, North Korea has arguably become a tiresome affair, leading academics and politicians alike to question its future (see the end of this article for more resources). However, there is as much reason to be optimistic for a brighter and prosperous future for North Korea as there is to be disillusioned with it.
Although it may not be immediately clear to us, the world has been in this position before. In fact, although the historical context in which the two countries existed was much different, from a strategic and diplomatic perspective the situation involving China in the mid-1950s to late 1960s is very similar to the situation currently playing out on the Korean Peninsula. Why is this comparison important?
The China of today is in almost every respect completely different from the China of the 1950s. More than thirty years of reform has opened the Chinese economy to investment, improved living and education standards for an enormous proportion of its population and has weaved China into the fabric of the international community. China’s ideological shift has resulted in the adoption of concrete policies and mechanisms which will keep it on track. Of course, China still has a way to go, but this should not deter us from recognizing the remarkable changes it has made in a relatively short period of time.
China’s experience should give us optimism for the future of North Korea. Not only is the North’s situation comparable to that of China’s 40 years ago, the conditions under which China was able to open and reform its economy are currently playing out in the Korean Peninsula, and they could mark the beginning of a path of reform and opening in the North.
Here We Are Again
The North Korea of today is in a very similar position as China was in the 1950s. The comparison of these two Asian countries will change the way we assess the future of the Korean Peninsula.
Similarly to China in the 1960s, North Korea is pursuing nuclear weapon capabilities, and it will likely meet its goal. The North Korean leadership has clearly stated and restated the importance of its nuclear program and its refusal to give it up. However, both the US and China have stated unequivocally their disapproval of a nuclear-armed North Korea. For China, acquisition of the nuclear bomb in 1964 was the focus of heightened global tensions at the time. Nonetheless, for those that may have expected long-term regional instability after this move, they could not have been more wrong. In fact, many Asian countries have experienced a period of unprecedented economic prosperity since the 1960’s. Although it will certainly draw the ire of the international community, North Korea’s acquisition of Nuclear weapons may not necessarily result in significant long term regional instability.
Similar to North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, Mao Zedong’s image in China is next to Godly. Furthermore, both leaders led their respective country’s fall into chaos. Mao Zedong, in a similar fashion to Kim Jong-un (and his father and grandfather), recklessly gambled the lives of his country’s citizens to posture against outside forces. As with China in 1949, Kim Jong-un took control of a country during a period of changing global alliances. Both leaders saw the military, and in particular, nuclear power as a key to national sovereignty. Similar to Mao’s China of the 1960s, Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship has repeatedly denounced “American Imperialists” in national propaganda, and has used the threat of war as a means to unite its people under it authoritarian rule.
As with China’s experience under Mao Zedong, North Korea’s isolation from the rest of the world has also made it difficult to assess the severity of the situation inside the country. However, we know that the situation is dire. Reports from escapees (Hyeonseo Lee: My escape from North Korea) have given outsiders a unique look inside the regime which unapologetically murders its citizens in harsh labour camps and through widespread famine. This year the UN Human Rights Council established a commission to investigate “the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Only a few months ago, Google released a detailed map of North Korea, including the locations of the country’s notorious prison camps.
So too have China and North Korea both been entangled in territorial disputes which involve the US. The Korean War (1950-53) entrenched the United States within the North Korea – South Korea debate and therefore, as with China’s ‘Taiwan’ issue, unification of the two Koreas will be impossible without American involvement and mediation.
Can China be a Model for North Korea?
As will be the case with North Korea and South Korea, Taiwan was a large diplomatic hurdle between China and the US in their rapprochement. China’s decision to delay the resolution of the Taiwan issue in favour of improving diplomatic relations with the United States would be a watershed moment for changing global alliances. North Korea must similarly be willing to consider whether it will delay a resolution with the South in favour of larger domestic and international goals.
The end of Mao’s era would be the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s; a pragmatic leader who would convert China’s ideological transformation into practical policymaking in 1978. Thereafter China proceeded on a path of opening and reform, the speed and veracity of which had never been witnessed before. North Korea certainly has the potential to follow this path, and there are small signs that it is willing to move towards economic reform. In fact, it has already been observed that since 2002 North Korea has been making progress toward a Chinese-style reform and opening. The most notable changes include the two ‘developmental zones’ which aim to deepen China-North Korean economic cooperation.
But there is still a long ways to go. Kim Jong-un’s regime is aware that economic reforms will almost certainly result in political reforms, something its dictator is currently unwilling to accept. Although North Korea has demanded the removal of official sanctions before agreeing to restart dialogues on the future of its nuclear program, it has also claimed its nuclear industry to be the lifeblood of the country. The US has largely rebuffed North Korean threats, however, it has also encouraged restraint among East Asian nations, and has pushed China to increase its role in controlling North Korea.
Furthermore, although China has maintained close economic ties with the North, there are signs that its long-time ally is losing patience. China has supported UN sanctions over the North and has encouraged peace in the Korean peninsula. In April President Xi warned during a speech at the Boao forum that “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains,” which was widely interpreted as a direct statement against North Korea. There are also signs that Chinese support for North Korea is diminishing, with some Chinese even fearing the erratic behaviour of its leader.
A Prosperous North Korea
We would be foolish to lose hope in the future of North Korea. If there is any lesson that can be learned from China’s tremendous transformation of the last 30 years, it is that the North is equally capable of doing the same.
Furthermore, circumstances on the Korean peninsula today are creating conditions favourable for opening and reform. New economic sanctions and cooling relations with China are squeezing North Korea’s leadership, leaving it with few options for long-term survival unless reforms are initiated. The US should look at subtle changes in the composition of North Korea’s leadership, and in particular, look for signs that the North is ready to either balance against China or improve relations with the US.
In Part 2 of this blog I will focus on the most recent events occurring within this debate including a contrasting of Chinese and American National interests in the Korean Peninsula.
- If a war comes to North Korea, North Korea will lose. Regardless, whether or not the North will enter into a war is an unknown.
Frank Sampson Jannuzi, Hitachi International Affairs Fellow
- “The imminent demise of North Korea–a “hard landing”–has been the subject of intense speculation since the collapse of the Marxist-Leninist regimes in 1989-91. Some observe5rs envisage a rapid German-style absorption of the North. Others predict reunification growing out of instability in the North brought on by reform, failed attempts to maintain the status quo, or a hard-line military overthrow of Kim Jong Il.”
- Different versions of North Korean collapse have been posited since the 90s.
- “China was sincere in expressing its desire for a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula, but the nuclear issue was not its primary concern. It also sought to prevent the collapse of the North Korean regime and the resulting potential for chaos on its border…”
- The collapse of North Korea is a real concern for China, one which has been the predominate factor in sustaining the troubled relationship.
Corey Willis is an MA Candidate in the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Beijing Normal University in Beijing and a research associate of LCMSDS.